Schools throughout Maine will be required to test their drinking and cooking water fixtures for lead this school year under a new law that makes lead testing of school water a state requirement.

In the past only schools that provided their own water through wells were required by federal law to undergo regular testing. Most schools in Maine are on town water systems and may have undergone testing on their own or through voluntary sampling with the Maine Drinking Water Program, a project of the Department of Health and Human Services, but efforts have varied around the state.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Andrew Carlton, superintendent in Wales-based Regional School Unit 4, which is among a small number of school districts participating in a lead testing pilot program ahead of the roll-out of the requirement for schools around the state. “The minute we heard about this and there was the potential of it coming down, we were on it because we should have been doing this years ago.”

The Maine Drinking Water Program, which works to enforce safe drinking water standards, is coordinating the lead testing program in schools, which is scheduled to start Oct. 1 and run through the end of May. The program follows legislation that passed in 2019 and the subsequent development of a new department rule this past spring.

Schools will be required to take inventory of fixtures used for drinking and cooking, collect and label water samples and send the samples to a state-designated lab. Results must be shared with parents, students and school staff, and while the law doesn’t require remediation, it is strongly recommended.

The new requirement comes as more states around the country are looking at or implementing requirements for lead testing in school water. The issue gained particular attention in 2014 following the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Maine schools, which tend to be older, have also encountered problems with lead in drinking water in recent years. A 2016 report by USA Today found 44 samples in 26 Maine schools or day care facilities reported elevated lead levels higher than the 15 parts per billion “action level” designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – the highest number of samples in any state.

The most common cause of lead in drinking water is from plumbing materials, including lead pipes, faucets and fixtures. Exposure for both adults and children can lead to problems in the nervous system as well as kidney damage, joint weakness, small increases in blood pressure and anemia. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning and can experience learning and developmental disabilities, behavioral problems as well as other physical ailments as a result.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who sponsored the legislation behind the new law, said in public testimony at the time that documented incidents of elevated levels of lead in school water systems in Yarmouth and Benton raised concerns about a lack of requirements around lead testing.

“We know that no level of lead is safe for our children and that exposure to lead can lead to impaired development, especially for developing brains,” Millett said at the time. “We should ensure that our kids aren’t being exposed to lead, no matter where their water comes from or the pipes it travels through. Old plumbing in our schools can leach lead and copper into water, even if the public water supply is safe.”

Maia Ferris, a rule specialist for the Maine Drinking Water Program, said it’s hard to quantify the presence of lead in school water in Maine, in part because the state doesn’t have consistent data on testing. “In general, schools in New England tend to be a little older,” Ferris said. “They tend to have plumbing that may contain lead or they may have lead particles from previous material, and New England waters tend to be a little more corrosive than waters in other parts of the United States.”

The law doesn’t specify how often schools have to test for lead, and Ferris said she couldn’t make a recommendation on how frequently testing should be done. However, all schools will be required to test this school year, with the testing being paid for with a $1 million federal grant. The rule recommends schools stop using all fixtures with elevated lead concentrations of 4 parts per billion or higher.

It doesn’t require remediation, but the Drinking Water Program is providing materials to schools to help them complete remediation and access to extra samples so they can troubleshoot where lead components are coming from in their plumbing. Remediation costs could range from a few hundred dollars if, for example, a single fixture needs to be replaced, to tens of thousands of dollars if a substantial plumbing issue were discovered, Ferris said.

Schools may be able to take advantage of federal funding sources to help pay for mitigation, including through the American Rescue Plan Act and a $1 trillion infrastructure package being considered by Congress, said Anya Fetcher, state director of Environment Maine, a group that researches and advocates for solutions to environmental challenges.

She said the new testing requirement is a “step in the right direction” for Maine schools, but the group has also encouraged schools to be proactive about replacing lead-bearing parts from drinking water systems without waiting for test results.

“What we’re seeing already in other states is the tests will show there is lead in the pipes,” Fetcher said. “We know we have a solution and we know even if it comes back at 4 parts per billion, that is still higher than is healthy for children to be drinking.”

A handful of Maine schools are already participating in the pilot program for lead testing, after which access to sampling will open to all schools. In RSU 4, Carlton said his district is eager to participate in the pilot so they can get a head start on meeting the testing requirement. “I think it just makes sense for us to start this process now knowing full well we’re going to have to do it later on,” he said.

Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta is also participating in the pilot. While school custodians already have a full schedule of responsibilities and demands awaiting them this year with COVID-19 protocols still in place, the school’s head custodian, Mark Hager, said he doesn’t expect the testing requirements to be too cumbersome.

“When this program came up, I said, ‘It’s important we go further,'” said Hager, who said the school previously did lead testing of 10 samples in 2017.

That testing prompted the school to replace three faucets that were from the same era of one that came back with slightly elevated lead levels. This time they will gather about 26 samples.

“Making sure we’re keeping our students safe and our community informed about what’s going on, I think it’s important we do that, which is why we’re doing this,” Hager said.

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